How to Survive Indiepocalypse in 5 Easy Steps
In the olden days the gaming industry was like a picturesque green pasture, inviting and peaceful. Set up your shop, make your masterpiece, enjoy life. Easy as pie or so the story goes.
Sadly, over the decades the landscape has changed a bit…
It’s gotten so crowded that some people started thinking that the End has to be nigh for surely God, who sent His only begotten Son to die on the cross to redeem mankind, won’t tolerate this hipster plague much longer and will wipe the slate clean sooner or later. So while we’re waiting for the Grand Finale, I might as well share my thoughts in hope that some people would find it useful.
Step 1 - Design
Your game has to stand out. It has to do at least one thing extremely well, preferably something that hasn’t been done before. Why be an indie game developer if not to try new things, right?
It’s not enough to do a game with tried and true mechanics, because in most cases "tried and true" has been done to death long before you decided to throw your hat into the ring. If all you’re adding to the recipe is new visuals, think twice. Sure, it’s possible that Kim Kardashian might tweet about your game and it becomes the next internet sensation, but Kim’s busy taking selfies, so let’s not rely on dumb luck alone.
Of course, every rule has exceptions. If you’re replicating the tried and true gameplay of something as venerable as Jagged Alliance 2, Wizardry 8, or Shadow of the Horned Rat, go right ahead. If not, don’t bother.
For our first game, we went with Choices & Consequences (C&C) – an "easy" category considering that 99% of games promise meaningful choices but never deliver because it takes a very long time, which is something we’ve learned the hard way after making the game for 11 years. AoD gives you:
- More meaningful choices than you can shake a stick at
- Parallel questlines showing events from different angles and points of view
- Radically different "Craft Your Own Story" playthroughs
For our next 'full scale' RPG, we’ll raise C&C up a notch and add party "dynamics", which will be very different from what you’re used to and go against the established design staples, possibly upsetting some folks in the process (again). It’s a very ambitious design, but as I said, doing what’s been done before – even if it was done by you – is not enough. You have to push forward or you will not survive.
Step 2 – Community
Now that you’re working on your game, you have to build a community around it and spread the word. No matter how well-designed your game is it will fail all the same if nobody knows about it. Yes, that too is your job.
Many indie developers look at what the AAA developers do and take notes. They think that if they act like the AAA boys, you know, professional and shit, everyone will assume they are real developers too and take them seriously.
Don’t do semi-official press-releases where you quote yourself. Don’t ask volunteer testers to sign NDAs as if you have the time, money, or desire to enforce them. Don’t write you own EULA on Steam as if Steam’s EULA isn’t good enough for you. Worst of all, don’t guard your stories and design ideas because someone might steal them. Yeah, Bethesda will decide to postpone The Elder Scrolls 6 and steal your
totally awesome ideas instead.
You have to sell people on your vision and you can’t do it if all you give them is a brief summary and Todd Howard’s famous “Trust us, it will be cool” line.
We’ve posted everything we had from day one. If we didn’t show something, it’s because we didn’t have it. We’ve "spoiled" every aspect of the game and answered every question about the game on as many forums as we could, giving people reasons to follow the game.
Go out into the world and engage gaming communities. Don’t hide behind moderators or "community managers". People who give a fuck about your game don’t want to be "managed", they want to talk to the guys making the game.
I made over 10,000 posts on multiple forums talking to people who showed interest and had questions. Oscar made over 6,000 posts. That’s not counting posts on Steam since we launched on Early Access and even more posts later after the game was released. If you can’t be arsed to talk to people who’re interested in your game, don’t expect them to support you in the future. Find time or you won’t stay in this business for long.
A word of warning before we get to the next chapter: when mingling with people you might discover that not everyone thinks your game ideas are as great as you think they are. Some people might actually harbor suspicions that your game sucks and be willing and even eager to share these thoughts with everyone they run into. You’d better get used to it because it’s going to happen a lot. ‘tis the magic of the internet.
Step 3 – Making a Game
Surprisingly, this step isn’t really about making a game. If you can’t make one, this handy guide won’t help you. It’s about the "economics" of it. You see, unless you hit it really big for an indie, like Darkest Dungeon-big, you won’t make a lot of money (for a real studio). Thus you must budget and ration like a lost-at-sea sailor to avoid these two fairly typical scenarios, which happen more often than you might think:
- You made a good game, it sold well for an indie but now you’re 100k in debt because the costs spiraled out of control. Basically, you made a good game but you spent more than you should have and now you’re dead in the water.
- You made a good game, it sold well for an indie, you recovered your initial investment and bought yourself an ice-cream but you have no money to continue and now you must try your luck on Kickstarter where you get not what you need to make a game but what you can get, which is anywhere from 10 to 30% if you’re lucky.
Treat what you earn from the first game as your operational budget for the second game. So the more you spend making your first game, the less you’ll have to make your second game. You see, the first game is always done on pure enthusiasm. You’re making a game, living the dream, working part-time, evenings and nights for years, because sleep is overrated. Enthusiasm is a great and cheap resource but you can’t run on it forever.
The goal here is to survive the indiepocalypse and build a real studio, right? So you make a game on enthusiasm, use what it earned to make a second game, use what it earned to make a third game, etc.
The Age of Decadence sold over 50,000 copies to-date at $22 average. The revenues aren't our reward for 11 years of hard work (that's done and gone) but our budget for the "Colony Ship RPG", our second project.
Step 5 (yes, we’ve just jumped from 3 to 5 because math is a social construct) – Make Another Game
You made your first game and it sold well enough to continue. Congrats! Now you have to do it all over again, but you need to do it better (see Step 1) and faster. In our case it means making the second game in 4-5 years without lowering quality. We’re aiming for 4 years; 5 is acceptable, 6 isn’t. Granted, the main reason AoD took so long is because:
- We had no experience, aka time-consuming trial-and-error approach to game design.
- We had no tools, no systems (things like combat, dialogues, etc), no engine; literally everything had to be done from scratch.
- We worked part-time for 10 years (enthusiasm doesn’t pay the bills) and switched to full-time only when the finish line was already in sight
... so there's a good chance that we can make a better game in 4-5 years but it's far from certain.
Anyway, the point is that your first game shows that you have what it takes to make an indie RPG that stands out in a crowd and sells enough to keep you in business. Until you do it again, the first game’s success is nothing but a fluke. You have to perform consistently without any margin for errors because the first mistake might kill you.
A second successful game will secure your future and turn that fellowship of geeks that is your team into a real game development studio. That’s the last hurdle to overcome, which is by no means an easy task.
But wait, there’s more…
Step 4 – Recycle
Even if we manage to make the Colony Ship RPG in 4-5 years AND it will be well received by our existing audience AND it will sell enough to make a third 'full scale' RPG, releasing games once every 4-5 years might not be enough to survive.
I wish we could expand our team right now and hire more people but we can’t, otherwise we risk running out of money and releasing the second game deep in debt (see Step 3). We need a reliable revenue booster, so we’re going to recycle and make an inexpensive tactical, party-based RPG using the first game’s engine, systems, and assets. Such a game is relatively easy to make, since we’re using the already existing building blocks, so the plan is to put it together in under a year and hope that it’s well received.
If it works, the revenues will boost the second game’s budget just as it enters production (we’re working on it now while the Colony Ship RPG is in pre-production), allowing us to get a couple of extra people and spend more money on art.
If it works, we can release a tactical combat game after each 'full scale' RPG and boost the next game’s budget.
Bonus Chapter – What About Marketing?
What about it? Marketing is a game of chance that all but guarantees winning IF you have enough money to stay in the game. There’s a famous saying attributed to John Wanamaker who knew a thing or two about marketing: "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."
It’s all about effective frequency, which means that you have to have faith and keep throwing money at ads even when they give you no return whatsoever. Harvard thinks that the magic number is nine. Most people have to see your ad nine times before they start responding to it. Thomas Smith thought the magic number is twenty. Krugman was convinced there are three phases: curiosity, recognition, decision, but obviously each phase takes a number of ads.
So what it means is that unless you have enough money to run ads until they start turning profit, don’t do it. You will spend 5k of your hard-earned money, which is the equivalent of a penny in the exciting world of advertising, get nothing and stop advertising, thus wasting the 5k you’ve just spent.
Without a marketing budget, your options are limited: you need the goodwill of the gaming media, which brings us back to Step 1 – design. Unless your game is worth talking about, the media will ignore it. They want to write what people want to read. If nobody wants to hear about your game, well, this brings us to Step 3 – Community: your most effective way of marketing your game and creating that interest that might result in the media gods looking at your creation favorably and blessing your efforts with a preview or a quick impressions article.
Overall, I don't think there was EVER a better time to be a game developer. Sure, the landscape is crowded (12,818 games on sale on Steam right now, which is insane), but the market is HUGE and there's plenty of room for everyone. There are over 125 million Steam users - that's paying customers able to buy a game with a single click, and all you need to do well is make a game that would appeal to 0.05% (or 0.3-0.5% if you like money a lot) of that ever-growing market. It's easier said than done, of course, but far from impossible.